Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I believe in man-made global warming

I make a point to illustrate my views when they drift from what people expect them to be, such as my support of gay marriage and taxing health care benefits. I do my best to look at each issue individually instead of "checking" to see which partisans support or oppose it.

So in that tradition, let me explain my lazy way of supporting the idea that human action is a significant cause in global warming:

There is a scientific consensus supporting the idea.

That's really all there is to it. Now this may be surprising because I am distrustful of experts, I support the Hayekian view of organizing society through emergent order instead of letting professionals plan everything.

However, I have no interest in climate science. The subject bores me, to be perfectly honest, and this is coming from someone who finds international trade and regulatory strategies to be exciting. I have tried to wade through climate revisionist articles and the best I can say is "I guess so."

It's dangerous to learn the basics of a discipline from someone with an ax to grind. Look at the terrible crash-course in physics 9-11 "truther" videos give to prove their bogus thesis - wouldn't it be better to learn physics 101 from a neutral source? Why would social activists have any incentive to make sure the basic building blocks of a science are accurate when they can just leave out inconvenient information?

That's assuming the activists actually understand the basics. I'm looking at you, localists.

If you want to have an informed opinion on a contested scientific issue, you need to learn the subject from the ground up. I was pretty confused for a while on global warming because both sides had points that sounded possible, but since I was out of my element I was unable to choose a winner.

What finally convinced me to take sides was hearing Steven Novella on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast refer to the consensus as both real, and that the research suggests about 90 percent certainty for the position.

That's all it took.

I had heard plenty of times before that there was a scientific consensus, but I also heard claims from the right saying it wasn't real. I no longer take those arguments seriously.

A consensus does not make something an absolutely proven truth, but what it does do is lend the credibility of the scientific community to a viewpoint. It's always possible that the consensus will be overturned in the future, but for the time being it is safe to go with the scientists.

If I really wanted to, I could read up on climate science and then take on the different arguments with some wisdom under my belt. I enjoy doing that with economics and risk-reward decisions in medicine, for example. But like I said before, I don't have an interest in climate science so the rational thing for me to do is ignore the issue and let a specialist handle it.

In economics this is called "rational ignorance," where it would be irrational for me to spend hours and hours reading boring climatology books so I could comment on an issue that has already been picked apart by everyone else.

I believe strongly in science as a way of figuring out our world. I do not think the scientific community is corrupted or bought off, and that's why I feel comfortable believing things like the safety of vaccines, the damaging effects of rent control, the benefits of international trade and the impact human beings have on global warming.

That doesn't mean I have to support the exaggerated risks or proposed lackluster solutions coming from the political realm, but I do believe in having a firm place to start from.


  1. So you are easily swayed by argumentum ad verecundiam due to rational ignorance. That isn't being very skeptical.

  2. Anon, that's a very good question. The difference between an argument from authority and appealing to a scientific consensus is a deep and rich topic, and the Steven Novella link I slipped into the post goes into more detail. I am having trouble deciding which lines to reproduce here, as it is all pretty important:

    >>>But science is complex, and few people can master more than a fairly narrow range of scientific expertise. And so outside our area of expertise (which is all of science for non-scientists) the best approach to take, in my opinion, is a hybrid approach – first, try to understand what is the consensus of scientific opinion. This is a good starting point – what do scientists believe, what do they agree on, and where is there legitimate controversy? How sure are they of their conclusions, and how strong is the consensus on any particular question?

    >>>But also, those interested in science will want to understand the evidence directly and how it relates to the consensus. But at the same time it must be recognized that a non-expert understanding of the evidence is a mere shadow of expert understanding. For example, I have read many articles about Archaeopteryx – a transitional species between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds. I can rattle off some of the anatomical details that mark Archaeopteryx as transitional – the presence of teeth and a long bony tail, for example. But there are details of anatomy that I cannot hope to appreciate, that require months or years of study and apprenticeship, and experience actually examining and describing fossils, of immersing oneself in the literature at the finest level of technical detail. And so ultimately I am trusting experts to interpret the fossil for me – not to mention to reconstruct the bones in the first place. I can only try to understand it on the deepest level I can.

    >>>What I conclude from this is that it is extreme hubris to substitute one’s frail non-expert assessment of a detailed scientific discipline for the consensus of opinion of scientific experts.<<<

    There are three positions one can take on a consensus. Agreeing, neutrality and disagreeing. All three can be appropriate in different situations. I have taken the first one.

    If you are going to disagree with a consensus - and you have the right to do so -you better know the subject inside and out and have a good reason for why the consensus is wrong. Some people who disagree with the man-made global warming theory meet that criteria - I don't want to say those people don't exist. But there a lot of people who don't. I have written critically about people who disagree with the consensus on free trade - why should this be any different?

  3. So you are citing a neurologist's opinion based on deductive reasoning to support your opinion on Global Warming. Wouldn't citing a geologist or climatologist's opinion be slightly more valid?

  4. Not at all. Steven Novella is a scientist, and he and I share an opinion on how to deal with scientific controversies. He's also someone who has a great understanding of the philosophy of science.

    And like I've said a few times, this is about choosing the side with the best odds of being right - and sure enough to put money on it.

    Is there something about this particular issue that you disagree with, or the stance on siding with a consensus as a default?

  5. I really like Novella's point on the narrow range of expertise one can have. It simply isn't possible for anyone to become fluent in all aspects of a field, much less science as a whole. In my field of biology, for instance, I've had professors who have specifically said they don't understand 2/3 of the biology literature available to them. These are some of the smartest people I know, but I don't expect a genetics professor to be a microbiology expert.